Have you ever wondered about the reality of living abroad? What life as an expat is like? The journey you take to make it all a reality? Last week I asked a few friends to share their experiences with me. You can read Life As An Expat here. 

The number of people who have contacted me has been eye-opening. It seems that many find themselves in a similar emotional mindset. Let’s face it. Choosing to be an expat is no easy feat. It’s rough and most certainly not as romantic as some may think.

I asked my fellow friends three questions about life abroad that I will answer today.

The Reality Of Living Abroad

1. Name a few challenges that you experienced in your emigration journey.

Our very first challenge was sharing the news of our decision. Our family was aware of this possible new chapter, and thankfully a beacon of support in the journey, but breaking the news to others brought a rather large dollop of anxiety.

There are so many emotions involved in choosing to live abroad. It’s similar to building a frustrating puzzle. Trying to get every piece to fit perfectly but not knowing where to place them. This first piece of sharing the news to live abroad is hard. It was particularly hard for us.

You’re met with various reactions. Shock, disbelief, hurt, sadness, and ANGER, but also understanding, support, and genuine interest. I’ll admit that it was the anger of others that had me in tears more often than not. I understand people trying to navigate the loss of a relationship, we’re also losing just as much. But, being met with anger and unkind words seems counterproductive for all involved. Especially when that anger is being verbalised in front of your children, and their excitement is being belittled. When dealing with the possibility of losing someone to living abroad, I think it’s imperative that both parties share life-giving words and constructive support. Sadly, there will be relationships that will no longer exist. It’s just a reality.

The logistics, and process of preparing for living abroad can create (I shouldn’t say can – they WILL create) a disassociation from life around you. You become so entrenched in the process that you eat, sleep, and breathe it. You are essentially living in two worlds, managing two lives, maintaining two environments, and sustaining two households. It’s exhausting.

There comes a time when you check out. When you feel that the current chapter just simply needs to come to a close. A part of you craves for the new chapter to begin because you can’t maintain it all, and so you start stepping back. When I share this with others, some have replied – “well, you are choosing to live abroad”. Yes, we did, but that doesn’t nullify the effects of the process. Not in the least.

It is also OK to be excited about the future. To savour every new moment and experience and to share that without guilt. I am incredibly thankful for the many people who supported us and stood by our side during this tumultuous time. We could never have made such a big move without their grace and support.

2. What would your top pieces of advice be for a family that is looking at living abroad?

  • Research your potential new environment carefully. We knew we needed an outdoor lifestyle (coming from SA, that was a non-negotiable from our point of view), so that was our main criterion, and that is how we started our search. 
  • Make sure you have all your legal documents ready, renewed, and duplicated. Certified and/or notarized copies are essential.
  • If moving with children, ensure that your will is up to date, and give a copy to their legal guardians. 
  • Ask for advice, many people from all over the world have become ex-pats. There is a lot of helpful advice out there. 
  • Once you arrive at your new destination, you have to “put yourself out there”. I know it seems uncomfortable, but that is how you create your new circle. Join the library, the PTA, or sports groups. Whatever your interest, find a group and entrench yourself in your new culture. You have to make a conscious effort to meet people and become part of your new community. 

3. How have you been affected mentally by leaving your home country and navigating life in a different culture, and what are you doing to manage those big emotions?

This is our second time around, and I have learned from my previous experience. I feel like we were better prepared from an emotional point of view because we had something of a “map” in mind for what emotions we might expect to encounter along the way.

Of course, some moments still catch you off guard (I don’t think that will ever stop)- especially since we’re talking about the big emotions – grief can do that. And I call it “grief” because that is precisely what it is… Grief at the loss of home and place, grief at the loss of familiar faces and voices and accents, grief at the loss of easy phone calls that don’t require careful scheduling around time difference, grief at the loss of so much.

We have been honest with ourselves and others about the grief we feel this time around; we have owned that grief and not tried to pretend so hard that all is sunshine and roses (because everyone knows that it isn’t, and no one expects it to be). So that is how we have better coped with the big emotions.

It’s an odd feeling, being entirely happy and content, yet feeling so much grief at the very same time.